In my first session at the SharePoint Evolution Conference Roadshow, I learned some best
practices for using forms and workflows from Mike Fitzmaurice, a VP at Nintex. Mike’s session, titled Forms and Workflow, Use the Right Tool for
the Right Task, revolved around the problematic task of turning physical
forms into digital ones, or in his words, from atoms to bits. There are three
factors to consider when making this transition. First, you need to think about
presentation. Is the form laid out in
a logical way? The last thing you want is to create unnecessary confusion
presenting information or questions in a sloppy way. The second factor is the process. There is a clear process when
filling out a physical form: you have to read the question, come up with an
answer, write it down, and then do something with the form. The same is true
with digital forms. A user will have to read and fill out the form before
submitting it to the proper person. The last factor is the data created the
form, the answers. When SharePoint first
started, importing a word doc form was impossible. Word docs were all binary
code and SharePoint had no way to sort through it.
With InfoPath, users were able to
transition forms from atoms to bits with reasonable ease. The new problem that
this process created was that these forms were not in the optimal format. This
is where Mike got into details. Using only out-of-the-box SharePoint, he took
us through the best way to deal with this form transition. The general gist is
that, with the help of workflows, you can separate the forms into pieces and parse
out the acquired data to its desired location.
In a traditional form, the data and the process are
incorporated into the form, meaning that everything is in one place in the
file. That is fine for simple things, but what happens when you have a form
with information that needs to go to different places? You have to send that
whole form around and have each person find the information they need. This can
get super messy superfast. It can also be difficult to secure the information. For example, think of a section on a form
that is marked “for office use only” that is filled in and making the rounds to
people who need other information from that form.
What do you do?
According to Mike, you should break up the form into logical
sections and use different workflows
to send it around and have it filled in. Even more than that, each section of
questions can be items in a task list.
This allows for a high level of security and makes it very easy for people to
find the information they need, as it is only the information that they need
that comes to them. Additionally, this approach allows the data to be sent to
wherever you want it to go on your SharePoint farm. There is a fair amount of
set-up needed for this process to function but Mike believes that you’ll find
that the results outweigh the means. For each piece of the form, you have to
create a simple workflow, send the
form, have it filled out, and disperse the collected information. Large
complicated forms require several workflows
but the end result is much easier on the end user and is more likely to garner
quality information. This system also uses the strengths of SharePoint to ease
the overall process. The main issue that many have with this approach is that
you have to be accepting of the fact that it is ok to split one form into many.